Twenty-five free attractions in San Francisco
The sea lions at Pier 39 provide fantastic -- and free -- photo opportunities. (Stephen Saks/LPI)
For such a good-time city, San Francisco quietly delivers a lot for a little. Many of its hotels offer comfort and location for a third of the price of a comparable New York or London hotel; public transport is part of the fun (cheaper Market Street vintage street cars are even more enjoyable than the famous cable cars), and for food you cannot beat a $4 burrito in the Mission. Even better, so many attractions in San Francisco are free. Here is a list of 25 options:
1. Amoeba Music’s free shows
When I lived in San Francisco, I spent at least a couple of hours a week at Amoeba Music, a huge record/CD store in a former bowling alley on Haight Street. Either troll the $1 bins for the glory of vinyl, or time a visit for the frequent free shows that set up in the corner.
2. Anchor Brewing Company tours
San Francisco's home-grown beer – call it simply “Anchor” not “Anchor Steam” to sound like a local – offers free-45-minute tours of its historic facilities and shiny-copper brewhouse, including tastings of six half-pints. The catch: at least a month ahead to get a spot.
3. Art galleries
San Francisco overflows with wild, unexpected art shows at dozens of galleries that are free to visit. They are quieter during the week, but simply more fun at openings or weekends.
An excellent starting place is the gallery-packed four-floor 49 Geary downtown. Other favourites include Ratio 3 in the Mission, whose artists regularly get Artforum coverage; the Diego Rivera Gallery; and the Tenderloin’s plucky Luggage Store Gallery.
4. Baseball for free (sort of)
Everyone loves the Giants AT&T Park for its bay-front views during baseball season (April to October). If you cannot get a ticket, you can watch for free from the archway along the waterfront promenade on the east side of the park.
5. Cable Car Museum
Putting the cable in “cable car”, this museum occupies a still-functioning cable-car barn, and shows off three 1870s cable cars, as well as those famed cables that pull the cute open carriages stuffed with tourists up and over the hills.
6. Café Royale’s events
Always free, this Parisian-styled café hosts a variety of events — karaoke, jazz, open-mic poetry slams and film screenings — several days a week.
7. City Hall
Inside the mighty beaux-arts dome, the splendid rotunda of San Francisco City Hall has ringing acoustics – a worthwhile spot to sit and consider the triumph and tragedy that has occurred here, including Harvey Milk's 1978 assassination. There are public art exhibitions in the basement and free tours from the tour kiosk.
8. Clarion Alley street art
The Mission's hot spot for trial by fire is on wee Clarion Alley, where street artworks are painted over unless they deliver enough to last a little while. Nothing stays (art) gold here. Even Anrew Schoultz's mural of gentrifying elephants displacing scraggly birds – a local favourite – faded over time. Go and see what is new.
9. Coit Tower murals and the Filbert Street Steps
Coit Tower is a beloved part of the San Francisco skyline, and is not free to go up. But the Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals that line the lobby are free to see. Glorifying the worker, the murals were created by 25 artists, many of whom were denounced as communists.
The famed Filbert Street Steps that lead up to Coit Tower are quite steep, but they tap into a hidden North Beach world of cottages along a wooden boardwalk called Napier Lane, with sculpture tucked in among gardens year-round and sweeping views of Bay Bridge. If you are heading back down, try the neighbouring Greenwich Street Stairs for an alternative route.
10. Fort Point
Built in 1861 to protect the city from Confederate attacks that never came, Fort Point is now more famous as the spot where Kim Novak leapt into the frigid waters of the bay in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It is an ideal vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge if you are not up to the walk across.
11. Golden Gate Bridge
You can bike across, but if you are dressed right, it is just as fun to walk across the world’s most beautiful bridge. At 1.7 miles across, some visitors just walk half-way across, take in the scene, and return (it is also possible to catch a bus back). The walkway is on the eastern side, facing the bay and Alcatraz, so it is hard to get Pacific views through the traffic. Check the website for pedestrian hours.
San Francisco with Lonely Planet
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